Saturday, May 26, 2012


Richard Ryan
Years ago, when I was just starting to do tours of France, I heard from a friend’s brother-in-law that there was this "really neat little hotel" down in Provence, outside of a small-ish town with many Roman fountains. It was run by an old French couple and was very authentique. Genuine. I noted it down and when the following year I had a family to guide through the south of France, I sent the hotel an e-mail inquiry.
     I got a reply from a British man named Richard Ryan. He and a certain Peter Cuff had bought the hotel.
     There was - and still is - a lot of that going on. French hotels bought up by foreigners and becoming only marginally French. I clearly remember sending him what I hoped was a polite but firm reply stating something to the effect that my tourists came looking for France, not England. He, in turn, politely defined the changes: TVs in the rooms and those British plug-in tea kettles... but that both could be removed if I so desired.
What became known as Sandy's Room
     I went with my tourists anyway... and we all enjoyed the hell out of our stay. The rooms were small and simple but clean, tasteful and especially authentique. The TV and tea-kettle stayed.
     Over the years and the visits, I got to know Richard much better. And I can only cringe as I imagine the words that probably came out of his mouth as he read that polite-but-firm e-mail of mine.

Richard and Peter were a couple. They had run a hotel in southwest France before their Provence hotel. And before that, Richard was an accountant - or something of the sort, something... well, stuffy but successful. He became besotted with Peter, the artist, from the moment they met. Which was many years previously. It was Peter who dragged them off to France, and I’m sure Richard’s life was much more settled before they met. But he loved him.
Peter Cuff, officiating
      When you stayed at the hotel, you soon learned that Peter was the Good Cop to Richard’s Bad Cop. Peter was all smiles and gentle humor with only a drop of chiding from time to time. Whereas Richard was sarcasm and wrinkled lip, sighs of exasperation, impatient rolling of eyes. But I gave as good as I got, and I thought I noticed that he enjoyed that, in a very secretive way.
     One day I arrived and Peter was in a bad mood. Acting foul. Very out of character. I told him so. "I have to be the Bad Cop," he retorted. "Richard’s not around."
     Peter also collected dogs. At one point they had three, who more or less had the run of the restaurant but most especially of the terrace.

Toby, begging
     The duo ran the hotel like slightly quirky clockwork. Over the years, they improved little details, but kept it traditional French provençal. Authentique. Peter told me that the initial changes they had made were more in the line of replacing tattered lace curtains with new ones and the chipped china with plates that Peter himself decorated in different shades of provençal blue. I wanted one badly but they weren’t for sale.
     The restaurant was superb. To die for. And the setting was pure paradise.

Then in the summer of 2009, after maybe fifteen years, Peter decided to clean the pool after lunch. It was a quiet time. Guests were still out touring the wonders that are Provence. Lunch guests had headed off. Richard went to their home across the road to do some book-keeping. The staff drove off on their break before the dinner rush.
     And when the maid came back, she found Peter’s clothes folded neatly on a chaise-longue and Peter floating, face down, in the pool. No one knows how long he’d been there. His body too hot from working in the sun, he had died instantly of what the French call hydrocution upon diving into the pool to cool off.

Richard was never the same. I just happened to call shortly after the accident, to ask if there was room at the inn because I needed to get away from Paris. He said there was, and just before hanging up, told me that Peter had died. That’s all.
     When I arrived at the train station, Richard had arranged a taxi driver friend to pick me up. Wanting to know more so as not to put my foot in my mouth, I asked the driver what had happened and he filled me in. When I reached the hotel, it was nearing the end of the lunch service. Richard was still there, hovering around, not accomplishing much, thinner than ever. Instead of the usual greeting of "Oh God! It’s back!" he asked me if I’d eaten. Then told the staff to set us up two plates outside in the shade. From where we could see the pool.
     He proceeded to talk for two hours. And I listened. And we drank.

I still have the e-mail he sent me three months later. It ended, "Despite the fact that you and I have always had verbal jousting sessions, I must say that your visit came at the right time for me and helped me to unload a lot of my stress. Hope it wasn't too hard for you!!" Typical Richard. Very understated. Very guarded. Very cards-to-his-chest.
     From that point on, every time I came down, we’d have almost every meal together, the dogs (now only two left) lying under the table. He invited me to his home, although only briefly. We went on several food runs together. We exchanged Christmas cards. And every card, every e-mail, from that point on was signed Rxxxx. Kisses from Richard.
     This spring I told him I’d come down to see him in early June, to see how he was recovering from the scheduled removal of the kidney he had announced.

About a week ago I flew back to France. And before I could get down to see him again, I got an e-mail from someone I’d met down there, a fellow guest at the hotel. He was sorry to tell me that Richard had died.
     It took me a week to screw up my courage. I called the hotel. The kidney had been removed... but the surgery caused a double pulmonary embolism that got the better of my favorite old curmudgeon. In classic black humor, I remembered an old doctor’s joke about the operation having been a success but unfortunately the patient died. I’m sure Richard would have enjoyed that joke.
     I’m not a believer. Don’t know if God exists or if there’s a life after this one. But I’d like to think Richard has been reunited with his beloved Peter. And that Peter will be kinder to him this time around.


  1. En fançais. Nous n'avons pas connu Richard et Peter très longtemps. Mais ce fut suffisant pour se rendre compte de la sympathie que dégageaient ces deux personnes derrière une première approche un peu très "anglaise". Très vite on s'est rendu compte de l'amabilité et la convivialité de ces deux personnes. Nous devons tourner cette page sans en oublier le récit. Nicole et Jean-Louis

  2. Sandy, you have always made Richard seem like the kind of curmudgeon I would love to meet. Again, you have brought this man to life and I am sorry for your loss and the loss of him for the many of us who never had a chance to meet him, except through your words. It is clear he took you into his closely guarded heart and I know you feel what an honor that was. I am so very sorry for this on many levels.

  3. Many thanks for introducing us to your remarkable friends whom, sadly, we will not have the chance to meet.
    The visit was delightful, as always.

  4. SANDY: I hope some time you will visit the hotel again (and stay in Sandy's Rooom) and find it little changed. Just minus Richard, Peter and the dogs---though, I suspect their spirits will ever hover. I also hope that perhaps this time you might be able to buy one (or two) of the plates, to go with the two from Terminus Nord. And, if so, then when you use it/them in your apartment---what happy memories.

    Again, my condolences. Karen

  5. last night i was flipping thru years of pictures which of course can make one rather maudlin. one person whom i missed and of course after 20 yrs had not looked for with enough zeal on the internet until today ( and how ridiculously easy it turned out to be) with the result , just like on my last foray in tracking down an old friend has ended in such sadness.

    peter and i worked together at conran in london in the early nineties, and when he and richard left for france on a permanant basis ther home became a stop off point for 3 years or so on my trips by train thru france to spain and italy, it was even suggested i work for them, but at 22 i did not feel like giving up london for the french country side ( fool!).

    those hot july weeks remain some of the greatest memories of my life, wonderful guys and hosts, fabulous food, trips to local attractions, wine drenched parties often ending with skinny dipping hysteria, and a car on virtual auto pilot on the drive back to their home.

    i did end up moving to france very soon after my last trip to live with 'the man of my dreams' they were much wiser than and i think saw what was to come, and i should have run into their arms not back to the uk when it all fell apart.

    my regrets at not having kept in touch and my silly hope of a happy ending of exchanged messages and sharing of news and memories is shattered. grief is a selfish thing, so i will go off now and be selfish.

    thank you so much for having painted such a vivid image of these fabulous old queens who were so kind to me, and though now very upset by the last part of your blog entry, i remain grateful at least for knowing.

  6. Sandy, I first read this piece last year. My partner Alex and I had known Richard and Peter for many years since they ran their previous B&B in Gascony, and the loss of Peter and then Richard has been difficult for us over the last few years. We were down at Bonoty just last week; as Richard's executors we had the difficult task of clearing out Richard's house; it had been used by the new owners of Bonoty until they had to give it up and all of Richard's possessions were still in the basement; boxes and boxes of memories of Richard and Peter's lives together; going back to Richard's childhood gymkhana rosettes and his wedding photos from 1954; and hundreds of works by Peter: so difficult to know whether what we were looking at was finished, or was rejected by him as not up to his exacting standards.

    You have captured Richard very well; he liked a verbal joust but underneath that - if you made it there - he was a loyal and loving friend, although he never missed an opportunity to provoke if he thought he could get away with it. I am not sure I quite agree with your assessment of Peter as the Good Cop; but they were a great couple and for Richard to carry on with Bonoty after Peter's death was a decision of remarkable fortitude, but utterly in character.

    The new owners of Bonoty are very keen to respect the memory of Richard (they did not know Peter); while colouring Bonoty in their image, they want to keep Bonoty as the business that Richard and Peter built up, although for us it will never be the same again. Returning after Peter's death was so difficult; for us, now, Bonoty is no longer the refuge it was.

    I said I first read this piece a year ago and was not quite able to work out what I wanted to say here; our recent weekend at Bonoty clearing out the house, and dealing with the notaire to conclude Richard's estate, has brought us we feel to the end of a chapter in our lives. Richard & Peter's place in Gascony was the first holiday that I took with my partner, and as our relationship matured so did our friendship with these fussy, hilarious, caring queens. Many people have wonderful memories of their hospitality, but now with their business changed hands and their possessions passed on, there will be increasingly few people who remember how wonderful those times were. Both Richard and Peter had fascinating and diverse lives - they were endlessly interesting people. Your post is one way that those memories will be helped to be kept alive.